Don’t Let Them Divide and Conquer Us

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Mattes, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia CommonsA while back I ran across a reporter’s query. It seemed this journalist wanted to know if the “right-wing” is decentralizing the Internet. That struck me as an odd thing to ask given most feel it is the “left-wing” that kicked the “right-wing” out of the clubhouse.

But, hey, if you want to sow division, this is the way to do it.

In 1894, five years before he became governor of New York State, Theodore Roosevelt wrote ever so eloquently of the need to come together as one nation and avoided the divide and conquer strategy that serves America’s enemies well:

“We Americans have many grave problems to solve, many threatening evils to fight, and many deeds to do, if, as we hope and believe, we have the wisdom, the strength, the courage, and the virtue to do them. But we must face facts as they are. We must neither surrender ourselves to a foolish optimism, nor succumb to a timid and ignoble pessimism. Our nation is that one among all the nations of the earth which holds in its hands the fate of the coming years. We enjoy exceptional advantages, and are menaced by exceptional dangers; and all signs indicate that we shall either fail greatly or succeed greatly. I firmly believe that we shall succeed; but we must not foolishly blink the dangers by which we are threatened, for that is the way to fail. On the contrary, we must soberly set to work to find out all we can about the existence and extent of every evil, must acknowledge it to be such, and must then attack it with unyielding resolution. There are many such evils, and each must be fought after a fashion; yet there is one quality which we must bring to the solution of every problem,—that is, an intense and fervid Americanism. We shall never be successful over the dangers that confront us; we shall never achieve true greatness, nor reach the lofty ideal which the founders and preservers of our mighty Federal Republic have set before us, unless we are Americans in heart and soul, in spirit and purpose, keenly alive to the responsibility implied in the very name of American, and proud beyond measure of the glorious privilege of bearing it… Americanism is a question of spirit, conviction, and purpose, not of creed or birthplace. The politician who bids for the Irish or German vote, or the Irishman or German who votes as an Irishman or German, is despicable, for all citizens of this commonwealth should vote solely as Americans.”

It’s easy to see a divide and conquer strategy at the thirty-thousand-foot level. On the other hand, it’s much harder to discern the nearer you are to it.

Yes, chances are you can’t see the forest for the trees right in your own neighborhood.

This “reverse myopia” is fascinating. It’s a behavioral phenomenon less often articulated, although probably because it’s so obvious. (Otherwise, why would such phrases as “thirty-thousand-foot level” and “forest for the trees” be so well understood.)

This is not to say you shouldn’t be proud of your heritage. I certainly am. As an Italian-American I continue to practice many of the customs passed down through my parents and their parents before them. But my immigrant grandparents made sure their children and grandchildren always lived in a way that put “American” in front of “Italian-American.” Roosevelt would have been proud.

More interesting to me, however, is the potential success of any other grass roots campaign that strives to embrace common understanding. Will it have legs, or will it, like so many other efforts, simply die on the vine.

Many years ago, I was part of a small group representing what is now the Rochester Chamber of Commerce. This group included Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. In that sense, it was the ideal non-partisan effort – we were one because of our commonalities despite our differences. (If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recognize this as E Pluribus Unum.)

The Chamber dispatched us to Albany to meet our State representatives. There, we expressed our thoughts on how to improve the business environment in New York State. While the politicians felt we made a compelling argument, we were bluntly told, the reality is we were only six people. Organized groups bring thousands to Albany. “Who do you think we will listen to?” they asked.

Here’s the thing. We weren’t the only small group of business leaders advocating for these same issues. There were many of us. Only we weren’t acting together, we were each acting as an independent unit.

And that’s why we failed.

Bringing this back to our smaller forest, have you ever wondered why our small individual voices fall silent in Albany? They are like each separate business group speaking to their own State reps.

Imagine how much more powerful all those tiny voices would be if they were to join together as one large voice. That megaphone of commonality would amplify their apprehensions in a way that’s much more difficult for the mass media and the policy makers to ignore. This might be enough to make a difference between achieving success and withering away.

Now, let’s take a look at this same strategy from the other side.

Let’s say you oppose those who are worried your policies may cause problems. Your biggest vulnerability lies in what behavioral psychology calls “social proof.” In less fancy terms, it’s called the “bandwagon effect.”

A bandwagon effect occurs when a critical mass is achieved. A critical mass is achieved when each of these disparate groups unite together to amplify their voice.

The tactic for those supporting the status quo, therefore, is to divide and conquer. Keep those separate groups separate. Build barriers – physical, bureaucratic, psychological – that impede their ability to join together. If you can keep them apart, they’ll never be able to attain that critical mass to trigger the bandwagon effect.

Now for the really bad news.

The Greater Western New York Region was long recognized as a cohesive territory within New York State. From its very beginning, our region was referred to as “The Genesee Country.” It was the footprint of the original Ontario County as defined by Preemption Line, an area that now includes or touches the 17 western-most counties in New York State. The New York State Department of Health classifies the 17 western-most counties as the “Western Region.”

Indeed, a century ago, Lockwood R. Doty, a well-respected historian (and judge) from Livingston County, compiled a four-volume set titled, The Genesee Country (Western New York). While this work left out Seneca and Chemung counties (for reasons unknown), it did cover the remaining 15 counties.

In 2011, however, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, realizing the value of the divide and conquer strategy, established 10 Regional Councils and pitted them against each other for economic redistribution grants. Today, the Greater Western New York Region remains split by Albany decrees into three Regional Councils – “Western New York,” “Finger Lakes” and “Southern Tier.”

Did you see what happened there? If you’re like most, probably not. That’s part of the strategy. This is what’s considered a bureaucratic barrier. It’s a subtle way to keep us apart.

Layered on top of this is a psychological barrier. At first, it was having us compete for the scandal-plagued “New York Billions.” But it’s continuing. It’s a classic zero-sum game where one side loses and the other side wins. Until there’s a way to create a win-win scenario, those pulling the strings in Albany and New York City are guaranteed to go unchallenged. They remain the only winners in this game.

Unless and until we can reunite, you can complain all you want. Like a tree falling in a forest with nobody there, will anyone hear you?

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